A memory about identifying a seal skull
<-On a Lahti Lab trip to the UP in Michigan.
If you speak with my mentor David Lahti, you may ask him about one of our first meetings. I believe that it is an example of my relationship with nature if I explain it here. I remarked on an anterior-facing skull on his office windowsill, correctly identifying it as belonging to a grey seal. Here is how I arrived at "grey seal". I had no memory of seeing a grey seal skull before that although I likely had in some museum or another, or in a book, or a web search. I had yet to do any work in a mammal museum collection before that day. But, I had seen enough canine, feline and bear skulls to rule those out. We were in Queens, NY. The nearest wild sea lion were further away from us the nearest true seal. Now, for the animal's size. Sea lions, even females, are bigger than grey and harbor seals. I wasn't looking at a juvenile though. The teeth were adult teeth, a few chips and nicks smoothed and squared over and layered over with hardened protein that colored them brown, that I betted would shine like it had been lacquered if I wiped it with a dry cloth. And those teeth! Modest looking. I imagined a sea lion in an aquarium and those I'd seen in nature documentaries and how much of their canines and carnassials were on display. In my head, I layered this skull over in the fleshy essentials: lips, whiskers, some muscles and the teeth receded and receded from view. Too far! The high kept, furry lips of the sea lion seemed like an impossible fit to this skull. If it was a sea lion, something was wrong with it. And the nasal opening! It was like the Holland Tunnel. There is no fitting a tunnel at the end of a proper rostrum. No, this was a true seal's face, with big nostrils and a flat face. So it was an adult seal. Grey or harbor? I recalled the live harbor seals, staples at the Maritime Aquarium of Norwalk, CT. Again, we were in Queens, NY, close enough to Long Island Sound, where they naturally occur in albeit low numbers for a beach comber to find one in the mud or sand. Harbor seal was the most likely fit but what about the grey? They're rare animals, unlikely to be near southern New York. The North Atlantic however, has some. I recalled that David has a tie to Maine and spends time there. I wasn't sure, but a discovery of a grey seal skull up in Maine or Nova Scotia seemed possible. Ok, so, still-, Grey, or Harbor? Now, I'd used the nasal opening to help rule out sea lions and was staring at the opening again. I thought of the harbor seals at the Maritime Aquarium and Central Park Zoo. How many, many, many times had I seen them up close? Some of my first memories were of the sloshing low cylinder of tantalizingly cool looking water, falling over the barrier and turning to droplets that I practically tasted and definitely smelled. The harbor seals went around and around and around. At feeding time, the keepers asked them to take fish where we could see them and so, I saw them and their snouts were more doglike than bear-like and as far as I knew, only bears had nasal cavities as deep as the one I was seeing over my new mentor's shoulder, that day in his office. How could I possibly attribute this outrageously-deep-chamber, a Holland Tunnel of an opening, looking like a landslide had occurred, looking like that KT-extinction meteor had landed in it, to the harbor seal faces that lived in my memories? So, I rolled the dice and said, "grey seal". As if I knew, even though I did not.